If you’re like me, midway through the first quarter you remembered why the season’s first 65 games felt like double that number, at least. Being a fan of a supposed contending team like the Sixers makes for an awfully difficult viewing experience. You must expect them to win every game, and even when they win, the devil is in the details. By how many points did they win? Did Ben shoot? Did Joel look in shape?
Well, last night we didn’t need to nit pick.
In their first official restart game in the Orlando bubble, the Sixers fumbled away a winnable game to the Pacers, who were without All-Star Domantas Sabonis and starting point guard Malcolm Brogdon. Victor Oladipo played restricted minutes.
The Sixers fell victim to a supernova performance from journeyman forward TJ Warren, who lit them up for a career-high 53 points, including multiple late-game daggers. Brett Brown had no answer for Warren all night, nor did DPOY-candidate Ben Simmons, or Matisse Thybulle, or Josh Richardson.
Offensively, the Sixers fumbled the ball away time and again throughout the contest. The team’s starting guards — Shake Milton and Richardson — played putrid basketball all night. They shied away from clean looks from beyond the arc and threw a number of errant entry-passes in the post. Milton, of course, also got into a screaming match with Joel Embiid, after the center chastised him for playing shoddy defense in the pick-and-roll.
Then why, pray tell, was the team even close towards the end of the game? Why were they down only 3 with 30 seconds left?
The reason would be one Joel Hans Embiid, who single-handedly dragged the team through sloppy stretches and nearly to the doorstep of victory. Of course, Indiana suited up a depleted frontcourt — what with Sabonis’ absence and all — and Embiid has always tormented Myles Turner whenever the two met. But there was something incredibly heartening from the Sixers perspective with Embiid unrolling that kind of performance on night one of the team’s restart.
In total, he finished with a line of 41 points, 21 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and 1 steal. He was a +21 in the 34 minutes he played. Video game numbers. The Sixers lost by 6, so they were a horrific -27 in the minutes Embiid rested.
And while a stat like that may do much in the way of invoking Greg Monroe Ghosts of Playoffs Past, Sixers fans ought to take this one, tiny silver lining from a dispiriting team effort: Embiid stayed in shape. After all the (rightful) handwringing and hypothesizing about how seldom Embiid might’ve worked out during quarantine, or how slow and deconditioned he must be after a four-month layoff, he put those worries to bed, emphatically. Embiid has been open in the past about how hard it has been for him to stay in basketball shape when not playing basketball games. Somewhere between Joel, the Sixers, and Embiid’s training team, they must have located the answer.
Joel Embiid dominated Indiana's undersized front-court in the Sixers' loss on Saturday, posting 41 points (15/23 shooting, 1/5 from 3, 10/12 FTs), 21 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and 1 steal in 34 minutes.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) August 2, 2020
Couldn't be stopped inside and was a tremendous rim protector: pic.twitter.com/2HxTHgvP1h
There is no greater single threat to the Sixers’ title chances than a lack of health and availability for Joel Embiid. No, he can’t do it on his own (see: Year, Last). But if Embiid made it through all that consecutive downtime without at all sacrificing his conditioning or sharpness, the Sixers have to be encouraged.
To recap: the Sixers were terrible on Saturday night. Their big starting lineup shakeup face-planted. Two starters threatened to ‘slap the sh*t’ out of each other. Ben Simmons displayed exactly none of the purported seismic shift in three-point willingness or aptitude. Al Horford looked like he was playing with cinder blocks tied to his shoes.
But Joel Embiid returned as the best version of Joel Embiid that we’ve seen this season. And with him, the Sixers have a fighting shot.